Thursday, May 7, 2009

Laws Won’t Stop Idiots Being Idiots

There is no doubt that alcohol related violence is a problem. Even if most people are quite capable of having a night out without starting a fight or damaging property, on the occasions when trouble does occur it can become very ugly very quickly. When it does, it becomes headline news, and it’s quite natural to expect the authorities to do something about the threat to public safety. Information and education campaigns don’t seem to have stopped the problem, and recent attempts to target specific venues labeled as trouble spots didn’t really make any difference either. Now, the New South Wales government wants to give police greater powers to direct people who appear to be drunk to move on, even if they haven’t actually done anything wrong.

While it might be admirable to try to head off trouble before it occurs, this approach effectively either treats people as guilty before the fact, or worse makes it illegal to appear drunk. It has been suggested that under such laws it would be possible to get into trouble for simply slurring your speech. If you are a little tipsy, a pleasant evening out could become very unpleasant, even though you have done no wrong. Even worse, a person with a speech impediment, or perhaps a stroke victim, could be wrongly accused of being inebriated, something which has already led to tragedy in the past.

What next? Arresting people for walking funny? Arresting people for being a smart alec, or having a whacky sense of humour? Arresting people for wearing funny clothes? Where do you draw the line? By these standards, New South Wales Police ought to issue an arrest warrant for Karl Stefanovic, the Channel 9 presenter who made embarrassing headlines by appearing on television in what we in the industry refer to as a “tired and emotional state”. Good heavens, I stumble over my words every day… am I next?

Of course, I am exaggerating the situation to make the point, but it is an important point. This proposal comes perilously close to making it illegal to enjoy a drink. It suggests that everyone who has a few drinks is about to explode into violence, and it simply isn’t true. The people who become obnoxious and violent are generally already obnoxious and violent… the alcohol just makes it worse. But that doesn’t mean that everybody should be punished. That doesn’t mean that everybody should be treated like idiots.

Piece by piece, laws are being introduced which are undermining our freedom to speak, to assemble together, to move about, perhaps even to think for ourselves. This new proposal won’t stop idiots being idiots, but it will provide police with the kind of power which can easily lead to unnecessary confrontations and abuses. It is already against the law to be violent. It is already against the law to be abusive and offensive. We don’t need more laws, we need more respect for the laws we already have, and more police to uphold them.

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